Archive for Citizen Kane

Enemy Agent

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 27, 2021 by dcairns

Black Sunset by Clancy Sigal, with its catchpenny subtitle Hollywood Sex, Life, Glamour, Betrayal & Raging Egos, was a chance discovery – they had a copy at St Columba’s Bookshop, which is the destination of my favourite long walks (my new low-carb diet requires exercise to accompany it, also apparently random blood-sugar crash collapses). They had the book in the movie section, which is correct, even though it looks like and reads like a thriller, or almost.

Sigal was, it seems, a genuine Hollywood agent working for Sam Jaffe (not the High Llama guy) at the time of the blacklist. His memoir seems trustworthy, since although he fills it with celebrity cameos and broiling tension, he doesn’t concoct anything resembling a plot. He writes propulsively, which is impressive since he was apparently 90 when this was published. He died a year later.

It’s hard to know for sure how factual it all is, but asides from consistently spelling Joseph Cotten’s surname incorrectly, it all seems to be in keeping with the known facts. Numerous names are changed to protect the guilty by association — the only writer I could ID from Sigal’s description (a woman working on the script of the first Hollywood film to feature Nazi murder camp footage is a pretty specific description) is Decla Dunning, the film being Welles’ THE STRANGER.

Among those cameos are Joan Crawford, discovered throwing up on the Universal lot, Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre, both Jaffe clients. Lorre’s chapter is terrific —

On learning of Sigal’s rep as a killer agent who even resorts to violence: “What’s that I hear? You beating up people for Mister Jaffe? THEN WHY DON’T YOU DO IT FOR ME, FAULER SACK? [lazy shit]”

On learning that, as a soldier, Sigal had gone awol to attend the Nuremberg Trials with the intention of assassinating Goering, but had muffed it: “You were there and did nozzing! Schwachkopf! […] Idiot! No wonder you get me only these crazy parts. […] You noodle, why didn’t you shoot?”

On HUAC members anti-semitic tendency to call unfriendly witnesses by their foreign, rather than their Americanized names: “Wait until they get to Ladislav Lowenstein.”

There are also a memorable walk-on by Martin Berkeley, a psychotic case who named more names that anyone alive, compulsively, like a ratfink tic. He named names he didn’t even know. His brief scene here suggests a psychological explanation: he felt guilty after naming names, so he named more names to convince himself it was nothing to be ashamed of. And felt MORE guilty, so named MORE names… And there’s a guest appearance by William Alland, Thompson and News on the March from CITIZEN KANE, by now a B-movie scifi producer at Universal, who seems equally demented.

With images like movie stars and agents gathering for a rooftop party on the Jaffe offices to watch a nearby atom bomb test, this could make a great movie, but you’d have to invent a plot. Sigal’s life was too disorderly to provide one, it seems (he later partnered in R.D. Laing’s experimental mental asylum, had a relationship with Doris Lessing, and co-wrote Julie Taymor’s FRIDA.)

The Big Mouth

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 16, 2021 by dcairns

I was curious about Errol Morris’ AMERICAN DHARMA, about Trump advisor and Breitbart exec Steve Bannon, but not apparently curious enough to see it when it was new. I finally checked it out.

Essentially, it conforms to the conclusions I’ve already drawn about Morris’s filmmaking. When he was making documentaries about ordinary people, he had an impressive ability to get them to open up. When he switched to people like Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld, he was suddenly dealing with people who had decades of practice obfuscating and outright lying and who were not about to change the habits of a lifetime. If David Frost couldn’t open up Richard Nixon, a barefaced crook, in three hours of television, Morris wasn’t going to get any damaging revelations out of these creeps in the space of a feature film. So all his films do is humanise the monsters. This, in some circumstances, might seem worthwhile in itself — monsters are human too. Understanding them can be useful, salutary. But McNamara’s technocrat logic and Rumsfeld’s nauseating folksiness are really just masks.

AMERICAN DHARMA does a number of things with Stephen K. Bannon (as he likes to call himself): it makes him look good, by filming him in a reconstructed set from Henry King’s TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH, and in hero poses on an airfield, and by flattering lighting and angles — we all know Bannon as a grubby unshaven carcinomic schlub wrapped in excess shirts, a kind of fleshly embodiment of Trumpian excess and corruption. Here he looks, at times, positively noble.

The Bannon emerging from the film is contradictory, which the real Bannon probably is too, but I felt I understood him less at the film’s end than at the beginning. Without feeling I’d been wrong in any of my derogatory opinions about him before. The onscreen Bannon’s most appealing characteristic was his admiration of Morris as a filmmaker and tearful-kitten-emoji eagerness to have Morris’ respect and affection. He genuinely didn’t want Morris to see him as a racist, white supremacist, mean bad guy. So the things he said were calculated to portray him otherwise. Morris was able to use film clips to show Bannon being less cautious elsewhere. When he instructed his audience that when they were called racists, they should “wear it as a badge of pride,” it definitely opened up a schism-chasm between affable Steve the interviewee and his public persona elsewhere. But it seemed, despite a 96 minute runtime, that there just wasn’t any opportunity to get into the nitty-gritty of how exactly it is possible to wear being called racist as a badge of honour, if you’re not a racist. Maybe getting a political figure to approach the truth about himself is going to take much more than an average/minimum feature length. Maybe it can’t be done. Maybe, if that’s true, it shouldn’t be attempted.

Of the varied slithery shitheels and war criminals Morris has allowed to wriggle free over the years (remember how he concluded that the Abu Ghraib torturers were only following orders?), Bannon ought to be the easiest to pin down. He’s not as clever as he thinks he is — I’m not at all certain he’s using the word “dharma” accurately, and certainly the line “we hit them with an enormous fuselage” (rather than “fusillade” — and this guy was in the military?) is laughable. And here is an apparent Breitbart headline, which will reward you for more attention than the copy editor gave it:

DONALD TRUMPS WINS WHITE HOUSE?

As we know from Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury and other places, Bannon is a man who likes to talk, and while that other jovial fat fellow of sinister motivation, Caspar Guttman, says that talking can only be done judiciously when practiced regularly, it is not certain that talking constantly can ever be judicious, especially if you have crimes to conceal. Bannon not infrequently says the quiet part out loud, because he just can’t bear the thought of there being a quiet part. So it’s actually surprising that Morris, emerging from behind his Interrotron™ to appear as a sort of CKANE Thompson interlocutor, can’t pin down his subject more meaningfully. I guess Morris could argue that, since I didn’t like Bannon better at the film’s end, he hadn’t glorified, glamourised, flattered and platformed a dangerous nutjob — but I have never felt Bannon’s craftiness, sadism and bigotry LESS keenly than I did watching him preen here.

Morris does catch Bannon in one flat-out lie, his assertion that Trump wrote his own inauguration address, which is followed by a slow blink so transparently bogus in its movie-sincerity that Morris’ cry of “Oh come on!” is hardly necessary. And his juxtapositions of archive news footage and doc interview occasionally get at the cruelty underlying the Trump administration’s every action, but living through those years made all that much more visible if you had eyes to see.

I once read that the left cares about human welfare and doing no harm, and the right cares about values, which felt true-ish. So that driving abortion underground, causing more harm, would seem perfectly reasonable to a rightwinger, since all that matters is not endorsing abortion. The death penalty needn’t work as a deterrent, it needn’t save money, it needn’t be humane, it just has to serve as the ultimate statement of a society’s values: there are certain things we feel are so bad that we get to kill you for them.

Suddenly, or not so suddenly, with the Trump administration it seemed like the cruelty was the point. The religious right could overlook Trump violating every commandment ever chiselled, so long as he hurt the right people. Morris mentions this cruelty, but he never follows up on it. When he asks “How is this helping anything?” he’s missing the point. It was never supposed to help anybody or anything, it was just a statement of identity: This particular kind of cruelty is the kind we like. As always with Trump-era wingnuttery, it’s all projection, so when the right accuses the left of identity politics, they’re confessing. Their politics is ALL about identity — their own.

Bannon is, at least, a better movie critic than Trump, who no doubt only chose CITIZEN KANE because it’s “the greatest.” I am undecided if Morris cut that piece together to conflate both Mrs. Kane’s because he assumes Trump doesn’t remember there’s two of them, or just because he wasn’t taking care. Bannon’s reading of CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT is possibly smarter than Morris’. But less humane.

The View

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 12, 2021 by dcairns

This shot in ALL THE KING’S MEN (1949) is so extreme in its wide-angle distortion (enhancing the fact that John Ireland really was enormous and Mercedes McCambridge really was tiny) that I wished the whole film was like that. Serious TOUCH OF EVIL vibes, and of course MM would go on to appear in TOE.

In fact, the rest of the film isn’t that much less distorted: so much of the action is big sweaty men crammed into small hotel rooms. Director Robert Rossen and DP Burnett Guffey crowd the frame with different-sized figures. Welles has to have been the inspiration. Rossen looks at CITIZEN KANE and then Welles comes along and borrows McCambridge ten years later.

I liked the movie — Ireland and McCambridge together before THE SCARF — Broderick Crawford in the role he was born for — but I didn’t love it. Maybe because the assassination of Huey Long, a dramatic twist in real life, feels like a cop-out in a fictionized version. I don’t know of any real-life political stories with satisfying climaxes. Stories of revolution are quite satisfying, but then you have to leave out what comes after (generally, disillusion). How the hell does Costa-Gavras do it?

Actually, this week I’ve been mainly listening to political history podcasts. Leon Neyfakh created the first two series of Slow Burn over at Slate, which dealt with Watergate and the Clinton Impeachment, and now he does Fiasco, which so far has covered Bush V Gore, the Iran-Contra scandal, school desegregation (“busing” as it got termed, a very successful piece of objuscation), and the Benghazi tragedy and its fall-out. Really terrific stuff. You could compare them to Adam Curtis documentaries for the ears, but if you don’t like Curtis I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of loving these.